M. C. A. Hogarth (haikujaguar) wrote,
M. C. A. Hogarth

Cultural Expectations (Review of Paper Mage)

I have been off the computer a lot recently, which means I’ve been doing more reading than usual… and yesterday I finished re-reading Paper Mage, which Leah Cutter recently re-released independently after an initial print run with Roc. As the name suggests, it’s about a Chinese girl who folds paper in order to create magic, and it’s splendidly grounded (from what I can tell) in historical Chinese culture and myth. At the time it came out I remember being startled and delighted to read a fantasy that wasn’t set in generic Medieval Europe… and sadly, over a decade later, it’s still startling and unusual to read a fantasy that isn’t set in generic Medieval Europe. Not so sadly, it was still delightful.

Which leaves me puzzled at the reviews left on the book, many of which complain about the narrator’s “passivity”, a complaint repeated often enough that Lyda Morehouse (another author I remember debuting at around the same time as Cutter) directly addressed it in her review:

If I had any problem with the book, it’s that Leah Cutter did her job transporting us back to another time and to an “alien” (to me, anyway,) culture *too* well. This feeds into the issue of her characters _seeming_ flat. As a modern, feminist reader, I had a hard time relating to Xiao Yen’s main conflict… whether ’tis nobler to embrace the life as a mage (which so clearly suits her), or to settle down and do the things a girl is “supposed” to do, ala have children via an arranged marriage.

Obviously, for this time and place, that’s absolutely the kind of conflict Xiao Yen should be having. Her homesickness is also perfectly in keeping with the society she was raised in. BUT, as an American living in the 21st century, I spent a lot of my time scratching my head, and thinking, “Get over it, already!”

Having re-read the book, I find myself astonished by these complaints. The protagonist of the book is stunningly non-passive to my eyes: she leaves the house of her family, learns to work magic, and then heads out onto the road to guard a caravan, during which she endures great hardships and does some rather heroic, epic things (and very cleverly, at that). Is merely longing for an expected life, one with communal ties and understandable merits, now a sign of passivity? Does wanting to have a spouse and children instantly pigeon-hole you as some kind of meek wallflower with no independent thoughts of your own?

In all honesty, my only problem with the book isn’t a problem at all… it’s that it’s aimed too well at a Western audience. Cutter presents the protagonist’s choice as just that: a dichotomous choice. She can have one thing, or the other, but it’s a clearly stated either/or situation… one very well set-up to appeal to a Westernized audience who is going to want the protagonist to make the choice they would make in her situation. I thought that was clever of Cutter because it does make the book more readable and more enjoyable to an audience reared on traditional fantasies with Westernized notions of independence and choice… so I was very surprised to hear so many people complaining that they didn’t see the choice at all!

I suppose “stay home and have babies” isn’t considered enough of a valid choice for a lot of people for it to have registered.

Whatever the case, I thought Paper Mage was delightful. I loved the setting, I thought Cutter did a lovely job with the magic and the “adventures” that Xiao Yen overcame—which she mastered in a fashion that reminded me of myth, with cleverness and foresight rather than brute strength and force of arms—and I even liked the flashback structure, despite not having a taste for it usually. If you’re looking for an enjoyable afternoon read and are tired of your fantasies feeling like Celtic/German mash-ups, check this one out. It has both an affordable kindle edition and a bound-book version.

Mirrored from MCAH Online.

Tags: reviews
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